Books

'The Art of Vanishing' and the Problem with Hybrids

The Art of Vanishing is strongest when it covers the life of an independent girl, Barbara Follett, a prodigy molded almost to death by demanding parents.

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust
Laura Smith

Viking

Feb 2018

Other

There's always more than a little ageism that infiltrates those of us who review memoirs from writers who have yet to really "come of age" or "pay dues", whatever that means. The plethora of "quarter life crisis" confessionals from scores of 20-something writers over the past decade are too numerous to mention and prove only to serve as easy targets of perhaps unfair criticism. Those of us who worked to find our voices or purposes well before the age of the worldwide web did so without the luxury of instant feedback, Rose-colored Instagram filter photos, and an eager choir willing to hear and validate anything we preached.

It's with this understanding that the jaded reader might immediately dismiss Laura Smith's The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust as a hybrid biography confessional memoir that effectively renders a compelling account of both styles but frustratingly leaves the reader with the understanding that neither was really strong enough to stand on its own. On one hand, it covers the life and sad times of child prodigy novelist Barbara Newhall Follett, whose first novel The House Without Windows was published in 1927 when she was just 12-years-old. In 1939, Follett disappeared without a trace, vanishing in an era when it was much easier to erase all vestiges of self.

The Art of Vanishing is strongest when it covers the life of this independent girl, this prodigy molded almost to death by demanding parents. It's the memoir section of this book that at times weighs it down and never really gels with Smith's careful research of Follett's time and place. It's a quick meeting and courtship between Smith and P.J. (presumably her husband), but she feels out of place: "In the carefully scripted wedding rituals, I detected bad faith. I felt… like a person pretending to be a bride." She goes forward with the plans, but something is out of place.

The reader goes back and forth from Follett's story of appearing almost as a fully-formed artist and Smith's indecision. It's properly balanced and the connections are strong. Perhaps it's intentional and this feeling of restlessness is intentional. We all long for something and somewhere else, and we get easily frustrated when this change is not exciting or fails to offer a satisfying resolution. Smith explains her creative perspective in Chapter Five:

I began writing about a woman who disappears. Not Barbara, but a fictional woman… I was interested in a… kind of vanishing… where you disentangle yourself from your life and start fresh.

Laura and P.J. leave the America, spend a year in Southeast Asia, and she concludes they were "…running away not just from home but from a certain idea of what married life should be. Marriage is in many ways freedom's opposite."

They spend time in Bangkok, a city where "pain and pleasure mingle incomprehensibly." They (primarily Smith) were escaping predictability but they couldn't escape themselves. The strongest links Smith makes with Barbara occur in such moments when we read the way the latter signed a letter to her father. It was a line of love, the word over and over again, each getting larger as it reached the end of the page. "Where is the dividing line in a love like this?" Smith writes. "At some point love crosses over from being the buoy that lifts you up to the tide that drags you under."

The point where Smith and P.J. start exploring the possibilities of an open marriage is not shocking or intrusive so much as inconsistent with the full essence of what The Art of Vanishing could have been. What happened to Barbara Follett? Why and how did she vanish after making such an interesting literary debut? The reader is likely to get frustrated that more time was not spent on this story than on the expansion of the author's marriage. Smith justifies even contemplating polygamy by noting that it was all just bodies, flesh on flesh, and no transactions of the mind or spirit. Simone de Beauvoir, Vanessa Bell, and Amelia Earhart are all held up as avatars of this "…willingness to tinker and experiment, to find lives and relationships that better suited them."

The effect here is simple. While the reader might be able to successfully balance the lives of the mysterious Barbara Follett in the '20s and '30s with the restless contemporary confessional spirit of the author, it's hard not to pass literary judgement. All the time we're reading Smith's story of contemplating the status of her marriage and testing the limits of what can be explored within its varied boundaries, we find ourselves wanting more Barbara Follett. Early in The Art of Vanishing, it becomes clear that Follet's parents, Helen and Wilson, "…were building a mythology around their baby." Consider these observations from one of them of their newborn daughter:

You are an ageless incarnation of spirit, the rarefied essence of Baby, a creature of dream and desire and we know that you could dissolve into a wish and become only a dream-that-was-too-beautiful.

It was a time (between World War I and II) of excessively progressive education and exploring boundaries of the mind. Rote memorization lost favor to something new and exciting. Montessori and Dewey and others opened doors to possibilities like Follett. Smith describes Follett's novel, The House Without Windows, as disturbing. The lead character Eepersip doesn't care for her parents and is never homesick. She's constantly in motion, being pursued, and her parents suffer the consequences. Follett's book was published in 1926, a golden era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cather, Dreiser, and Faulkner. Blanche Knopf, whose name meant publishing in those days, called Follett a genius. The wheels on this vehicle were so carefully calibrated to the point that a crashing failure (and eventual vanishing) was inevitable.

Smith's prose while examining the trajectory of Follett as part libertine, free-thinker, and daring trailblazer, is sympathetic and touching. She seems to understand the process this young girl had to undergo in order to establish herself in the literary world. Whether or not she was making this choice on her own or simply a pawn in service of her parent's idealistic whims is another question. Smith cites a warning from a reviewer at the time, sending a clear message to Follett's parents that attention must be paid: "I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of nineteen and thirty-nine to have published a successful book between the ages of nine and twelve."

The question Smith asks of Follett's seemingly immaculate conception is one that reviewers asked at the time: "Was this really her work?" This is one of several questions asked and never answered through the course of The Art of Vanishing, and it compounds the reader's potential frustrations. Do we really need this hybrid biography memoir? The connections are clear. A young literary prodigy bursts onto the scene in the mid-'20s, at the age of 12 with a fantastical book about a girl who will follow no rules. Twelve years later, the author (now 25) vanishes. Smith connects with this desire to vanish, this compulsion to wipe the slate clean and start life in a different emotional zone, but the balance is unequal. We simply want more from and of the Follett story.

More frustrating than the imbalance of these two narratives are the moments when Smith provides us with interesting glimpses of her childhood but doesn't follow through with them. "When I went to dinner at friend's houses, I pretended I was their daughter… How could one family, one life lived in one place ever satisfy?" It's the stories of other child prodigies that could have made for a more compelling story, here. There's William Siddis, the child prodigy mathematician who entered Harvard at the age of 11 only to end up collecting streetcar transfers. Follett is abandoned by her father and goes on long sea voyages with her mother (who ends up writing a book about the experience). This history is powerfully rendered in basically a journalistic account so as to be in service of Smith's own story. The problem is that Smith seems to feel both narratives are equally profound.

Before she was 25 and chose to vanish off the face of the earth, Follett had spent time at sea and engaged in her own journey through the Appalachian Trail, (approximately a half century before Cheryl Strayed's West Coast version in the memoir, Wild.) It's the unpredictable nature of this character that we want to read, and Smith gets deep into her possible motivations. As for her own problems, Laura Smith is suitably clear and succinct:

Inviting chaos into your life… can be a clarifying tonic. In a state of upheaval the minor concerns of daily living are summarily dismissed. But it is also terrifying, if you allow yourself to pause and think about it.

We can take for granted that these feelings were terrifying, but we don't really feel it in her case. As a memoirist, she's too close to her subject. The polygamous ingredient she and P.J. introduce into their marriage is interesting, but the inclusion of her sole extramarital paramour, Michael, into the narrative seems only to serve potentially prurient interests. Smith explains:

I saw my relationship with Michael as a beautiful little terrarium: a self-sufficient ecosystem that had no bearing on the outside world.

The direct honesty of Smith's reflection here is admirable, but it still doesn't negate the fact that she still seems to be writing with a shield between herself and the unavoidable impression that she is not yet able to fully and honestly explore who she was at the time.

Smith draws journalist David Carr into her story when she cites a line from his memoir, The Night of the Gun. In it, Carr writes "When there is no edge, we make our own." He used cocaine as a supplement for his definition. Smith seems be relating with Carr in another way in that she sees how "…he was making trouble where there didn't have to be any…" She continues by noting, in perhaps an admirably honest manner, "…destruction's revolutionary potential." She cites the potential of making something better from the mess of your life.

By the time The Art of Vanishing reaches an end, we get as rich a picture of the mysterious Barbara Follett as we are likely to get. Smith affixes herself to Follett's narrative and in effect asks us to see her ending (such as it is) as equally interesting. Unfortunately for Smith, the powerful way she renders Follett's rise and disappearance overshadows its confessional creative nonfiction memoir characteristics. Time and perspective would have made Smith's own story resonate much more strongly when paired with Follett's.

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